On almost every measure, church attendance is good for you.

Researchers have consistently found that religiosity is positively correlated with better mental health, better health overall, better relationships, and even longevity.

BUT–and there’s a very big but coming–not all religiosity is the same.

When researchers say “religiosity“, they mean every person who says they actively practice a religion. 

When researchers say “Christian“, they tend to mean every person who claims to be a Christian on a form. 

When researchers say “church-goers“, they tend to mean every person who goes to a Christian church of any denomination. 

When those of us in the evangelical tradition hear those words, though, we tend to picture people who go to evangelical churches, even though those words encompass so much more. Those who are active in an evangelical church are actually a small part of those who would call themselves “church-goers”, “Christian”, or “religious”. “Christian” and “Church-goers”, for instance, encompasses Catholics and mainline Protestants, and not just evangelicals. And those other groups are very large.

So today I’d like to take you through some of what we’re doing as we’re writing our mother-daughter book about the impacts of growing up in an evangelical church.

Our mother-daughter book (very tentatively called She Deserves Better) is due in at the publishers on Friday.

You have absolutely no idea how much that date has been circled on my calendar, dancing through my dreams, basically defining a new stage of my life.

Since September of 2019 we have been working non-stop writing these books. We have not come up for air. Though I’ve had one big vacation in that time (our cruise three weeks before COVID), even on that cruise I had to write for two hours a day.

We’ve written four books in that time; we’ve conducted three huge surveys; we’ve launched four books (because 31 Days to Great Sex launched over that time period as well!) and one big course (our Orgasm Course). And as much as I think these books are important, I find writing books much more challenging than blog posts or social media. I am just so looking forward to getting back to being able to CHOOSE what I do every day, instead of having looming deadlines.

Keith and I are also under contract for a marriage book, which will likely involve the most complicated survey we’ve done to date, but we’ve delayed that for a year because I need a break.

This week, then, is our final stretch.

We still have the editing process, but this is our final writing stretch. I’m going over to Rebecca’s everyday and we’re just going to slog through.

But let me tell you about something that we wrote in the introduction last week, that explains much of what we found in our surveys.

And to begin, let me give you another glimpse into how we wrote the surveys, and why doing this to academic standards matters.

In survey development, there’s something called “previously validated question sets”.

What this means is that, if you’re going to measure something (self-esteem in our case), it’s best to use question sets that have already been used before in other studies and have been validated to actually measure self-esteem accurately and well.

If question sets have been found to work, then don’t reinvent the wheel. Use the same question sets.

We did that for marital satisfaction for our other surveys, and we used a question set about sexual satisfaction that was validated for use in other conservatively religious populations.

And by “we”, I mostly mean Joanna, my co-author, and Rebecca. They’re the ones who know this stuff. I just get to take credit for it.

Anyway, we used a large question set that measures self-esteem, so that we could measure how certain common evangelical teachings aimed at teen girls impacted their self-esteem in high school and impacted them today.

Here’s why this is really cool: Because other studies have also used the same question sets, we now have a variety of outcomes we can infer.

Let’s say there was another study using the same self-esteem scale in high school but looking at how self-esteem in high school was linked to job satisfaction, or income level, or chance of divorce. Or perhaps it was linked to mental health outcomes! Because we used the same scale, we can look at other peer reviewed studies that measured other things, and we can draw similar conclusions.

And what studies have found is that self-esteem is highly correlated with lots of good things, and low self-esteem is highly correlated with lots of bad things.

So when we find that certain beliefs when you’re a teen are correlated with drops in self-esteem, that tells us something about all kinds of different outcomes, beyond just the sexual satisfaction and marital satisfaction ones that we measured ourselves.

And believe me–it ain’t pretty.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post:

We found that for some outcomes, not going to church is better than going to church.

Basically, when it comes to the effects on self-esteem that many of the beliefs have, the order is:

Order of Self-Esteem Outcomes By Believing Harmful Teachings about Modesty as Teens

  • BEST: Go to church, but don’t believe these things
  • NEXT: Don’t go to church, and don’t believe these things
  • WORST: Go to church, and believe these things (or don’t go to church and believe these things)

It isn’t true for every belief, but for many of them, such as the modesty messages we measured, it definitely is.

Now, this is only about self-esteem, and not about faith.

But let’s do a little math for a second. Remember when you learned averages back in grades 5 or 6? Averages mean that some things are pulling you up, and some things are pulling you down, and the average is where things even out.

Well, we know two things:

  • Religiosity is very beneficial for self-esteem  (AVERAGE)
  • Going to a church which teaches certain bad modesty messages is bad for self-esteem (PULLING THE AVERAGE DOWN)

Let’s put on our math caps for a second: if the average is beneficial, but these churches are pulling things down, then by definition there must be something else pulling things UP. 

This is what many in evangelicalism are refusing to see:

There are healthy churches, and healthy expressions of faith in Christ, that do not hurt. And there are A LOT of them. 

There have to be a lot to pull that average up! And that’s what we found as well. Going to church as a whole is good for teens; believing this stuff is not. So there are many, many churches which do not teach this stuff, which do not make this a main point of what they teach their teens, which do not hurt. 

When our family was attending churches that did teach this stuff, we felt like we didn’t have a choice.

I worried that other churches didn’t believe the Bible or didn’t know Jesus. But when I actually left the denominations that taught that, and started looking at other churches, I found health–and I also found Jesus.

I’m going to head over to Rebecca’s in a moment to finish up writing this book, but I just want you all to know that there is hope. There are churches that are healthy. There are places that do not heap burdens on you, but instead value you. And the more we realize that and stop thinking we all have to put up with toxicity, because it’s the only way to still have Jesus, the more these healthy places will grow.

** BONUS assignment:

I haven’t had time to respond to this, because of our writing deadline, but in the next two weeks or so, once we’re finished, I’d like to respond to this article by pastor Josh Howerton about how evangelicals do better on every measure. He claims he’s sharing “True Stats”, but I challenge you all to read that article, and leave some of your critiques in the comments here. I’m curious to see if some of you notice what Joanna and I did when we took a look! So take what you learned from this post, and what you’ve learned from other things I’ve said, and see if you can find some problems with what he’s arguing.

Finally, just as an example of how bad things can be, a Fixed It For You I posted last night on Instagram: 

Doug Wilson and complementarianism

Seriously, is it any wonder that some churches do harm? And while this is extreme, many churches do teach a form of this. And it has very, very bad outcomes for teen girls!

We can do better. And I do hope our books help put the church on a healthier trajectory, by teaching women especially that they have a choice, and they don’t have to put up with this kind of toxicity.

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Evangelicalism and Self-Esteem in Teen Girls

What do you think? See anything wrong with Josh Howerton’s article? How does church affect self-esteem? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum

Sheila is determined to help Christians find BIBLICAL, HEALTHY, EVIDENCE-BASED help for their marriage. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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